As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Fahim ul Haq.
Fahim ul Haq is the co-founder and CEO of Educative, the world’s leading upskilling platform for and by developers. He is a former software engineer at Microsoft and Facebook with a deep passion for creating better, more efficient ways for developers to master in-demand skills.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Many executives enter senior leadership from the workforce, but my personal path is more a product of being a founder than of an intentional career transition into management. I was already feeling frustrated with developer learning before we started Educative. My brother Naeem and I would talk about some of the problems. We both had degrees and had been working at large software firms for years, but ramping up on a new library, a new framework, a new language always seemed harder than it should be. The Internet exists; all the knowledge in the world is out there, somewhere — you can find it for free in YouTube videos, on Wikipedia, on someone’s scanned pages of a book — but it’s not accessible. How can you find it all? And how can you make it meaningful?
We wanted to build a solution that wasn’t just finding disparate pieces of information, but tightly woven together to create an intentional learning experience, that was hands-on, and easy for the user to test their skill. All this experience had tallied to this product in our heads, and we just wondered “why isn’t anyone doing this?”
As much as we could see this problem with learning in the places we were working, big companies have core products. They have millions of labor hours producing tools you and I use every day, but they’re not about developer training. Especially as a junior developer, you’re not going to get buy-in for your big idea at these organizations that aren’t even developer training specialists to begin with. So, we decided to do it on our own.
I was a developer at first, a co-engineer with Naeem, building this product. But as you start getting investors, adding customers, hiring employees, someone must be responsible for all the business stuff. And part of the reason I’m the CEO is that I was more willing to take on that role of partnering with course authors and getting the brand out there, and I’m still CEO because it’s a new challenge, new problems to solve, a different way to look at things. It’s a good learning opportunity to find new ways to grow every day — which is really what the product is about for businesses and developers.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
There was this slow transition from building the company to leading it. As the company grew, I was taking on more and more work — payroll, customer service, marketing, etc. So, we’d hire someone to help with marketing, hire someone to help lead the developer team, hire someone to manage our relationships with course authors, hire someone to handle payroll and benefits. At some point, the responsibilities tipped from building and managing — though obviously I’m still doing that, the company is growing — to leading a bunch of different silos.
A large part of that transition was learning to let things go. There was this process of delegation that happened, one by one, bit by bit. So, a funny story there is how our COO joined us, and really helped define the company’s shape and function. I was talking with Cecilia Cayetano about a role, and she wondered if we had grown to the point where there was enough work for her to do. And I had a whiteboard with a list of tasks from hiring to payroll to policy writing to equipment and office management, and I told her of course there was enough work to do. And she asked me what the job was, and I said, “I don’t know, this is just the stuff that I don’t want to do.” She took a picture of my whiteboard and over a couple days wrote a job description — she defined herself as COO, and operational efforts have ramped up around her expertise and vision ever since.
It’s not that I couldn’t do it, it’s that bringing on people who have domains of expertise and are interested in those roles is important. The last thing I let go was customer service. Up until early 2020, I was still personally responding to every customer service request; I still review features and product pain points so we can act, but I’m no longer troubleshooting products, manually issuing refunds, marking that settlement and account status in our user management system — and doing all that as a CEO. I had to give that up so I could focus on building and leading the business into its next phase. We hired someone literally a few days before the pandemic sent us all working remote, and she has been great.
What I’ve learned as I’ve transitioned into leadership is: 1) that you need to let things go; you can’t control every little operation of the company; there’s just too much; and 2) that you have to hire the right people; you have to find someone who is smarter than you, more interested than you, and more capable than you in these domain areas; good companies are products of good people working well together.
You are a successful business leader. Which character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example?
I don’t think success is a destination. I don’t think I’ve had “success,” because we’re still growing, still learning. In May of this year, we secured Series A funding to continue pursuing growth among individual learners and becoming a learning solution for the enterprise, but we can’t stop. So that might be one factor, not being satisfied with just okay. We’re not where we want to be, and we — my co-founder and I — both acknowledge that and look to keep learning. It’s important to learn as an individual and as a company.
Secondly, I think we offer a unique solution with sensitivity to developer learning styles. So many websites you watch videos, pause the video, jump over to your IDE, try some code, you must compile it and run it to see the result, and then you go back to the video. It takes forever, and there are just massive gaps in the learning. So that’s a significant pain point that our product addresses in a few ways: 1) setup is demotivating; how many times have you said “I want to organize the garage this weekend”, only to get out to the garage, see how much there is to clean out, and then it’s only after cleaning it out and sorting everything that you can get to actually organizing; projects that you can just jump into are great, and we want a low barrier to entry; 2) you can read at 250 words per minute, while the average video is presented at 150 words per minute. So, you can read the same thing they’re saying 66% faster; 3) with our code playgrounds in-line with the text, you don’t have to switch over to an IDE midstream, so there’s no task-switching in the brain; there’s no delay to compile and run, because we give you real-time previews. It’s just a sensitivity to developers that’s reflected in the product.
Thirdly, we strongly believe in bias for action. It’s one of our internal leadership principles. Technology and the developer world moves so fast, our customers need answers now. So, we build now, even if it isn’t scalable, we build something now, learn from it, and scale or adapt as we go. It’s constant iteration, reflective of that learning mentality I mentioned earlier. We don’t often get bogged down in the process. Everything is a process. Business is a process.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
So there are a few things. First, and I realize I keep hammering on this point, but I think it’s so important, you have to have a growth mindset. I think people get burned out when they feel like they’re just treading water, not advancing, and the process just becomes a drag. You’re pouring all this time and energy into something that doesn’t seem to be working, and you just get mentally, emotionally, and physically drained. But you need to recognize growth as its own reward. Were there times I worked and sometimes still work 20-hour days? Sure. But when that’s the case, I have to reflect on those days, and apply lessons to see where we can make it better going forward. Learn lessons and apply those lessons. Be thoughtful, not just a doer.
Secondly, I think as you’re learning lessons, you also learn a lot about yourself. You learn your strengths and weaknesses both as a person and as a businessperson. When you recognize those weaknesses, and see what strengths are needed to fill in the gaps, you need to be radically honest with yourself and the business. Hire the right people; recognize talent, bring on talent, nurture talent — give them projects that you don’t have either the time, skillset, or desire to do but recognize are needed, and let them run. Great leaders surround themselves with great people and don’t feel threatened by them.
Thirdly, and this kind of follows the second, value your people. Internally, this means recognizing that as the CEO, you’re almost a culture officer. Let there be a great work culture, and actually participate in it. Be part of the office events. Externally, this means valuing your customers. Some of our biggest critics are also our biggest champions; our users provide us honest feedback; they want the product to be successful because they see value in it. If they didn’t see any potential, they wouldn’t complain and ask for fixes, they’d just walk away. So, nurture communities, take feedback and act on it, and deliver value. It’s all give and take.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
It’s almost impossible to give enough credit to every single person who has been there at different stages, where we needed different influences. Obviously, there’s Naeem, who isn’t only my co-founder and current executive, but also my brother; Cecilia who is still building out the structural skeleton of this amorphous operation that we put together; and I’ve already mentioned the mentor who really turned me from engineer into CEO. When you’re a founder and growing into an executive, especially when you participate in an accelerator program — we were with Techstars Seattle in 2018 — there are mentors guiding you; with investors you establish a board of directors, and they’re all experienced and have great insight and help guide the company to success.
As much as Naeem and I had a vision for the product, nothing great is built by two guys in a garage. All respect to the Jobs/Wozniak founding myth, Apple became what it is today over decades, not out of that garage. To build something worthwhile takes working with a lot of people over a long period of time. And a lot of times, you have so much advice coming in, people encouraging you to “think about this” or asking, “have you considered that,” it just helps to get some direct, simple, distilled advice.
And there was one breakfast I was having with a CEO, who had just sold his startup for several million dollars, about how specific things we should do. Very straightforward: do this thing, make sure you’re covering these bases, this is what you’ll need, here’s my recommendation for a partner for X. In 45 minutes, he gave me more actionable communication than I had in months of mentoring talks. He knows who he is, and I hope he knows what a big difference he made in getting Educative to where it is today. Clear direction is something we all need sometimes and having someone with the experience and wisdom to communicate is so valuable.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
To be frank, the professional is personal in a lot of ways. Educative is reflective of my vision, and there’s obviously a sort of business imperative to succeed there. We want the company and product to grow. But in the narrower sense, what I am trying to do at Educative — as our marketing and sales team gets the word out, as our product team builds more and better solutions for our customers — is to build the most agile, most collaborative company of our size in the world. It’s not about sales for me personally; I believe if I can build a great organization the sales will come.
As the company grows, our various operational areas will get more defined, and my question for myself is how can I be helpful in breaking down silos, in empowering my own employees to learn on the job? We’re looking at tripling our headcount in less than 18 months, and guiding us through those transitions of scale, while I am learning on the job, is what’s going on professionally.
And bringing that learning mentality is helping me grow as a person. I’m scaling up my own skills with the company, and I’m setting goals for myself with the company’s own growth. That’s still very exciting.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
- One of the things you experience as a software engineer in a large company (Facebook, Microsoft in my case) is a sort of insulation from the business process. It’s easy to fall into a sort of production trap: write your code, validate it, have it plugged in, and know you shipped a product or update with intentional problem-solving behind it. It’s a rewarding challenge, but a bit myopic. Somewhere out there is an entire corporate infrastructure supporting you — the buildings and facilities maintenance; the logistics for both physical products, but even in tech, someone paying for the cloud hosting and your local machine; there’s an HR department that handles people, pay, and benefits; there’s insurance not just for you as an individual, like medical and all that, but for the business. It’s not that you don’t know this stuff exists, but it’s abstracted. Or it was for me. I was very insulated from business concerns beyond the product. When the company no longer provides you this infrastructure, you need to create it yourself, maintain it yourself. So really what I’d tell other founders is that a product is not a business; a product is what a business sells. You have to see and handle the big picture, because until you can grow and hire people to handle all these concerns, it’s on you. You need to know your business intimately.
- Being a developer, I always had sort of the “if you build it, they will come” mentality. I didn’t have any real appreciation for sales and marketing, or just what those people did to engage customers. When my brother Naeem and I first launched Educative, we didn’t get any traction. There’s a fear that crops up: am I scratching my own itch, or is there a genuine need among our target audience? And even if there is a need, is the answer to the question my answer, or is the answer to the question something else? How do you validate that? Educative has something unique, and we have validated that idea with our growth, but now that we have, how do we make some noise? How do we make ourselves known? It’s a problem we’re still solving; it’s a problem I think everyone is solving, no matter how big they are. But as a founder, you are delivering not just a product, but trying to steer this ship called a “business” to growth and success. And that means sales and marketing, and letting it influence product direction. It’s all about customer obsession, customer communication, and meeting your community in their space, not waiting for them to come to you.
- It’s about the customer’s need, not your idea. In the beginning, when we were building the Educative platform, it took us over six months to launch with some courses. We had no investors, not even any real connection in the world of funding; it was just Naeem and me with an idea to build a better learning solution for developers like us. I was speaking with a mentor, and he asked me what I did every day. And I told him that I’d send one or two emails, look for some connections, and then I’d write code. And I was thinking “what else is there to do?” And this man was really honest with me, and he told me that there was so much more to do — that I had to go out and network, build pitch decks, lay out where the product was going and how the customer base would evolve; in short, I had to focus on business needs by building the network who could lead us to customers, to funding, and to the talent that would help us scale. And he told me something that is still a challenge; it’s a lesson that we all learn every day. He said I gravitated to code because it was what I was familiar with; if I could build it, that day was a success. I sunk hours into my code, and that meant I was a developer. I was doing something, but it was the work of a developer, not a CEO. If I kept doing what I was comfortable with, the business couldn’t grow, because all that other stuff is hard. I had to get out of my comfort zone. Over the next several months, I contributed less and less to the codebase and product development basically fell to Naeem, because those other efforts — product growth, marketing, networking, handling investors — were important and they fell to me. And there are two things I take away from this, and they’re both good lessons for CEOs generally, but especially for founders. The first is almost exactly what he said: get out of your comfort zone; you must have a growth mindset. That’s what being a CEO is. And the second part of the lesson follows from there: we all have seasons, identities we take up, and we use them to validate our work and ourselves. But sometimes it’s time to step into the next season. I was an engineer, and in the way I think and approach problems, I think I still am. But clinging to what an engineer does, I’m no longer that. You must embrace new identities. You have to become a CEO.
- It’s a bit cliche to say that things don’t happen overnight, so I’ll go a step further and say you have to find comfort in knowing that. It was like when we made our first sale, and we could have said “okay, this is the start, it’s all up from here,” but of course it wasn’t. Even now that we have a stable business and continue to grow, that happens in spurts: every three to six months, we’ll develop a new product or feature offering, and we’ll get a flood of interest. This is a normal cycle. And it’s a normal cycle in large businesses, too. The really big companies can stabilize those lean moments with a great credit line, or by offsetting slow performance — and sometimes even losses — in one business area with a great season for another. But when you’re selling one or two products in a focused business area, you have to get used to the roller coaster. People think of roller coasters as the thrill that is the ride, fast turns, a sudden dip, all that. But at the beginning, there’s just this long, slow, grinding climb up to the top, and you feel like you’ve reached the pinnacle, and then it’s a rapid drop, a jerking turn, and then you’re going up again to store some kinetic energy for the next drop, the next turn. If you’re going off-roading, even if you’re driving the same car as before, it’s not going to be paved and smooth and quiet. Managing those expectations and managing our own work cycle to be able to meet our customer needs and demands, you have to get used to it. Each success has both a slow, invisible grind to get to that peak, and a drop off to whatever the level is after the growth. Whatever that rhythm is, you have to take comfort in it.
- Related to the last one, I think it’s important to celebrate small wins. Coming from big, established technology firms, it seemed kind of silly for me to trumpet, say, $1,000,000 as a benchmark when the company is making billions in a quarter. There’s some other team that did a million dollars on their lunch break, and your team is small potatoes. But that $1,000,000 could be huge to that team who isn’t a billion-dollar product. At a company like Educative, we have to recognize our successes, and those have internal meaning. If our engineering team finishes a project ahead of schedule or even on-time or turns around a fix for a critical support ticket, that’s awesome. And we celebrate that. We have internal Slack channels to help us call out thanks to contributions. In 2016, a year into our founding, my second child was born. That same month, our revenue wasn’t enough to generate a meaningful paycheck. I was basically “unemployed,” and it was so easy to just look at every day with Naeem and talk about the doomsday scenario — just all the things that could go wrong. And we were spending so much time talking about a maybe-event that it became this emotional blackhole, and a serious productivity suck because all that time talking about the problem was time spent not actually doing anything. We set a rule — wait six months, and then we’ll review. We’d go all-in. Five months later, it was one of those peaks that you don’t see coming during the climb. Our revenue grew sixfold in a month. It wasn’t a lot, but it was a huge moment. And we wouldn’t have made it if we didn’t focus on the little wins, the shipped course, the updated feature, the small sales that we were getting. And then, of course, it was right back to the grind, and celebrating more small wins. We still do it every day.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
To cycle back to my previous answer, the personal is professional. What started as a desire to build the product I wanted as a developer has turned into a strong desire to see developers supported throughout their career. From bootcamps or school — or even if you just break into tech by taking one of our intro courses — we also want to be there as new languages and frameworks emerge, as engineers move into management and devops, and to provide with the tools to be lifelong learners. Part of our product growth is offering this solution to enterprise, so that organizations can foster engineers throughout their employment along whatever path both the company and the developers need or want to pursue.
Educative, I hope, will be my legacy. It will be a platform for developers to continue growing, to be supported throughout their lives, and give companies the tools necessary to support and engage their employees. If this business is successful, it is because we did something right.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
It really is about lifelong learning. Educative may be for developers, but we have teams in marketing and sales, human resources, operations, content development, customer support — all of it. These people need support, too. And we all need to keep growing, both personally for the sake of building connections and conversing with a rapidly changing world, but also professionally as new trends emerge, new technologies take hold, and our discipline areas evolve. People shouldn’t feel left behind; they should be given the tools and opportunities they need to continue growing, and the encouragement to take on that mindset for themselves.
We often talk about “lifelong learning” or “growth mindset” in the business world — if you do a web search, most of the top results will be business or professional articles — but it’s more than just having employable skills. Being open, adaptive, and receptive to new information helps us be more communicative people. So that growth mindset I emphasize in business is worth emphasizing for the community, and it’s what I care about, what we try to care about at Educative.